Of the roughly 100 Roman emperors (exact figures are difficult to agree due to several emperors having ‘co-emperors’ – at one point there were 4 co-emperors at the same time) who ruled between the founding of the empire in 27BC and the fall of the Western Empire in 476 only 25% died of natural causes. Despite it being such a dangerous job, men would literally kill to have it.There were many interesting individuals among the ranks of Emperors, and everyone has heard of the craziness of Nero and Caligula, but here are the seven most notableemperors.
1. Augustus Caesar
It may be widely believed that Julius Caesar was the first Roman emperor. While he held many titles, that was not one of them. He died a mere ‘dictator for life’. His great-nephew, Octavian, however, did become the first emperor of Rome. Appointed Julius’s heir, Octavian ruled as joint dictator with Mark Anthony (yes, he of Cleopatra fame) and Marcus Lepidus, before a civil war divided the three. Octavian beat first Lepidus, and then beat Mark Anthony in the Battle of Actium. He was proclaimed ‘First Citizen of Rome’ and took the name Augustus – meaning great – Caesar – after his uncle. While he refused a monarchical title, the structure that Augustus put in place, and the role he took was that of absolute ruler. He grew the Empire on all its borders, and initiated an era of relative peace, known as the Pax Romana. He created a standing army, regularised taxation, and worked to make the city of Rome the greatest that had ever existed. He died in 14 AD at the age of 75 and was much mourned. In time, his role as founder of the Empire became almost mythical, and Augustus himself was worshipped as a god.
Claudius, the step-grandson of the Emperor Augustus and the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius became the fourth Emperor in 41 AD. His own nephew, Caligula, had been emperor before him, but Caligula was assassinated by his own body guard for being cruel and crazy. Claudius famously limped and was slightly deaf due to a childhood illness. This may have saved him from the vicious purges under Caligula. Claudius was learned, a famed and skilled historian and writer, and probably due to his infirmity lived a life of the mind rather than of military action, like many of his contemporaries. He was the first Emperor born outside Italy as he was born in Gaul (modern France) while his father was on military service. Despite a lack of experience, and a low expectation on him (which was why the military made him emperor after Caligula) Claudius was an able administrator of the Empire. He oversaw the successful invasion of Britain, personally travelling there to oversee settlement, and began the occupation of that island which lasted 300 years. He also added Thrace, Lycia, and Judea to the Empire. Throughout his reign he was vulnerable to plotting by rivals to the throne. Eventually his wife Agrippina poisoned him so that she could ensure the succession of her son, and Claudius’s step-son Nero. In time Claudius was remembered as one of the greatest, and steadiest, Emperors.
Raised to the throne in 98 AD, Trajan was born to a middle class family in what is now Spain. He joined the army when a young man and became a successful and popular commander. He came to the notice of the Emperor Domitian and after supporting the Emperor in suppressing an insurrection, Domitian’s successor adopted Trajan as his heir – a move that was popular with the army and the people. Trajan was a builder king. He carried out extensive public works that made ancient Rome into much that is still familiar today, particularly the still impressive forum, and the might column of victory that bears his name. His military conquests were extensive, and the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan with the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia. His high reputation has endured through the centuries, and he is still consider one of the greatest Romans.
Hadrian became Emperor in 117 on the death of his cousin Trajan. He was the third of what have been called the five good emperors (along with Nerva, Trajan, Antonninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius). And his reignconsolidated much of what his predecessor had done. Beyond that Hadrian is notable for building Hadrian’s Wall in the north of what is now England in order to keep the barbarous Picts out of Roman territory. The wall, some 72 miles in length is largely still standing today. Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon in Rome, again this still stands and is pretty much complete. Hadrian reformed the army, of which he made sure everyone knew that he was part, and retreated from some of Trajan’s conquest to make the Empire more manageable. He was hailed though history as a humane and gentle ruler, and like his predecessor, his reputation remains intact. He was also the first emperor to habitually wear a beard, and became a trend setter, by making sure all statues of him showed his whiskers.
5. Marcus Aurelius
The last of the ‘five good emperors’ Marcus Aurelius who took power in 161 AD, is today known mainly as a philosopher. He was a dedicated Stoic, the ancient philosophy that taught its adherents to control their emotional response to events in order to experience calm. His book, Meditations, which really was his personal thought journal which was never intended for publication, is still a best seller, and contains much useful wisdom, even for the 21s Century. As an Emperor, Marcus spent most of his reign on campaign. First was a major war with Parthia (now part of Iran) and then inquelling the rebellious Germanic tribes. At heart Marcus was a man of peace, but he accepted his role as Emperor and the obligations that placed on him. His high reputation is however tarnished by the increase in the persecution of Christians during his reign.
6. Constantine the Great
Constantine I, or Constantine the Great, is the only Roman Emperor who became a Christian saint in both the Western and Orthodox churches. He was born to a Roman general in Greece in 272AD. His father became a deputy Emperor (yes, they had such things), and campaigned with him in Britain and elsewhere. Popular with the army, Constantine was proclaimed Emperor by his men on the death of his father. He immediately had to fight a civil war against two other Emperors (this is one of those times when there were several Emperors reigning at the same time), but he prevailed to become the sole ruler of the Empire in 324 AD. Constantine enacted many administrative financial, military and social reforms, and pulled the Empire into a new age of optimism after it had languished under a series of non-entity Emperors. Constantine himself converted to Christianity and managed the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 325 which formalised tolerance for Christians in the Empire. He also called the Council of Nicaea at which the Church adopted the Nicene Creed, still used today. It was also Constantine that began the process of moving the centre of the Roman Empire to the east when he built a palace for himself in Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople (now Istanbul). It would become the seat of the Eastern Roman Emperors for the next thousand years.
7. Romulus Augustulus
The ‘Roman Empire’ actually lasted in one for or another until 1806 when the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, was defeated by Napoleon at the battle of Austerlitz and dissolved the Empire. Before that, the Empire was split between East and West in the fourth century. The last Western Roman Emperor, and the last Emperor of ancient Rome, was a weakling called Romulus Augustulus. He was 15 years old and reigned for just under a year. By the time he took throne, the ‘empire’ was little more than Italy and southern France. His rule was little more than a front for his powerful father, Orestes, onetime aid to Attila the Hun. When his father refused to cede land to a tribe of mercenaries, they captured and executed him, leaving Romulus alone and unable to wield any authority, he has left no mark on history other than his existence. As the mercenaries advanced on the city of Ravenna, by that time the capital of the Empire, Romulus abdicated. His stepping down in 476 from the throne, while it cause no ripples at the time, is now taken as the end of the ancient Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages.